The cowshed craftsman
‘As long as I can make the model, then I can make the full-size version.’ Meet the man who is building his own Porsche 908 – and more
Meet the man who’s building his own Porsche 908
HALF A COWSHED in Bridport is not the obvious place to find a Porsche 908, much less a millimetre-perfect full-sized wooden model of a Mercedes-Benz streamliner. But Ross Gammie is not exactly the typical replica builder. People build replicas for all sorts of different reasons, usually financial, but Gammie clearly does things because he wants to, and then works out the reasons why when he’s finished. And it’s not that he’s unique; there are plenty of crafstmen hiding in sheds who turn out breathtaking work in humble circumstances. So maybe it’s the curious variety of subjects Gammie has chosen to build over the years that makes him stand out. That, and the seemingly inexhaustible fund of descriptive one-liners that comes with them.
A pattern-maker by trade, Gammie spent much of his early life casting manhole covers in his native Australia, before emigrating to England in the early 1990s, having become (in his words) bored with sunshine and topless beaches. ‘I had a problem getting out the airport,’ he adds. ‘They hadn’t seen too many Aussies migrating to England.’
Before he left, Gammie had also built himself an ‘English cottage’, or a perfect replica of something you’d find in the Cotswolds. ‘People asked me, why did I do it. Well, I used to do houses and Aus people go weak at the knees for a Little English Cottage. I had to train the Aus builders because they don’t think like builders used to but I thought there might be a market so I built two. Then I struggled to sell ’em. Went to a developer in the end. Now they’re on the TV.’
And his interest in cars? ‘Well, I had an Austin Seven when I was 15.’
I pick my way through the muddy crew yard, redolent with bovine aromas, and enter a large, dusty shed built from breezeblock and clad with grey fibre. Everything within is covered with dust – with the possible exception of a Porsche 911 RSR sitting just inside the door, which is real, rather than replicated, and has a bespoke cover. The building has obviously been designed to house and feed cattle rather than create automotive artwork, so the animal husbandry that still occupies much of the square footage is legitimate dust creation.
But at the end of a narrow corridor, yet another dusty door opens to reveal the wooden Streamliner. Incredible, whether it’s because that’s about the last thing you’d expect to see, or the sheer size of it, or the obvious crafstmanship that went into its creation, or the number of ribs and bulkheads that seem to enhance the lines rather than break them up. Perhaps all of the above, plus the simple notion that somebody would do this for no
obvious reason other than because they could. There’s no doubting the wow factor, which makes the assembled gathering go silent for a moment, but, once you get past that, the method of construction is almost more interesting than the outcome.
On the dusty bench, with its wall of different-sized spokeshaves, is a small-scale varnished wooden version, which is the starting point – for this and all the other creations – and it’s made from a series of shaped wooden biscuits, which are cut oversize from a sheet then sandwiched together and located with dowels and screws to make sure they fit exactly. Gammie then ‘plays around’ with the model until he is happy with it; which is to say, he carves the shape until it matches the pictures. Then he dismantles the model and places each biscuit on a large sheet of graph paper so he can draw round the points with a fine pen in order to scale it up. An uncanny skill or simply the application of a lifetime’s training?
‘Aww... I don’t know if I have an eye,’ he replies. ‘The model is my eye. Without that, I’d be blind. You just carve it all to create what you know is right, then dismantle it. Then you can’t be wrong really, because it gives you a load of points on paper. You just have to remember that 1mm on the model turns into 5mm when you scale it up.’
Well, yes, but I can’t help noticing that it’s the model that has to be exactly right in the first place, and at a fraction of the final size. The five-times penalty for a minute error of line sounds a great deal more of a problem to me than it does to Gammie.
Even more surprising is that he is able to do it all from a photograph, and that the Streamliner was just a diversion while he was waiting for a casting. ‘I had a couple of months to wait, so I built the Streamliner. You know, Mercedes were on to me,’ he says, ‘asking all sorts of questions. They reckon it was pretty much millimetre perfect and they wanted to know where on Earth I got the drawings and how many bodies I’d made. I think they were checking for fraud. But I did it because I wanted to see a beautiful thing, not because I necessarily wanted to sell it. Anyway, the body on the one they have is wrong, it should have a bulge on the bonnet and it hasn’t. And it’s all made of magnesium.’
His eyes roll at the sheer extravagance of it all. ‘Most people knock off someone’s car and make a mould. Not many people build from a model.’
To the uninitiated, it looks logical yet fraught with gotchas. Build a model, scale it up to make a buck out of wood and foam – or ‘anything you can get hold of’ – then take mouldings from it. It’s easy to assume that is how most low-volume cars have to be made, so I guess the difference is that here it has to look exactly like an original, which isn’t available for measurement.
Gammie’s first effort using this technique was a Porsche 550 Spyder, the essential model for which sits on a shelf in his workshop. ‘Didn’t work out,’ he says. ‘Fell out with the guy who was my partner so we never finished it. Then I saw a Sharknose Ferrari in the Jacques Swaters museum. No headlights, no doors. The most unobtainable. I thought I’d better make one. I hoped there might be a market, but it doesn’t look like it. Wrote to everyone. Wheatcroft was the only one who replied, but it’s all gone quiet.’ He adds that it had involved the best part of eight months’ work.
We move across the breeze-block corridor to another workroom, the walls lined with pictures and drawings, all by Gammie’s hand, and the shelves piled with wooden casting patterns. There’s a Porsche rocker cover, a set of inlet trumpets for a Ferrari flat-12, an end cover for an Alfa Tipo 31 engine, gearlevers, uprights, disc bells, wheel centres for the 908. Did he make everything I can see?
‘Yeah. It’s all the special parts. They’re all cast. The Brit constructors used stuff off the shelf but if you use proprietary parts for Alfas, Porsches, Ferraris, they’re just wrong, and they don’t work like the originals.’
He picks up a grey shape, which holds a ball-joint for the Porsche’s suspension. ‘Like this Zimmerman balljoint. They’re £500 each and I need six. I cast them in a stick, then put a ball-joint in it. And these anti-roll bar clamps, which I had to cast, then cut off. I can see why people don’t do it. All the stuff that, these days, it’s possible to hob from a solid lump using a CNC mill, is patterned in wood, then cast and machined.’ He cracks a mischievous grin. ‘They wouldn’t sell me one anyway, so I guess being a pattern-maker helps.’
The shelves also contain more models: a Bentley Special from which he made a full-size working car (looking a bit like a 1930s Delahaye); a Porsche 908 Spyder, an Abarth Carrera – ‘Thought about making one of these because you can get the engines. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, seeing as how I haven’t sold any of the others…’
And there’s one he didn’t make: a Kyosho model of the No 22 Ferrari 250GTO, the car that finished third overall at Le Mans in 1962, then second the year after, and is now owned by Nick Mason. I tell him I’ve driven it lots. ‘Really? Well, I got to make a 1:5 scale model.’
The computer and the scanner he says have changed everything, but there is still a demand for sandcast stuff because it doesn’t look right when it’s done on a CNC mill. ‘And people like my bucks because they get all the solid bits to go with it. The nose, the flares, all that stuff which is harder to do on computer.’
And, of course, there is the coupé 908-3 sitting on trestles, which Gammie says was a lot easier to do because he found a drawing at Goodwood, as well as a real car that he could photograph. But why a 908?
‘I saw one in Queensland a while back. Always thought I could build one before I die. It’s only a few bits of tube and some glassfibre, and they’re only 37 inches high.’ All of which is true, but the thing that makes it
Clockwise from left
They all begin as a 1:5 scale model – the Mercedes W196 streamliner in this case; Ross Gammie’s 911 RSR (this one’s real, it seems); the master interprets his own drawings; the
full-size streamliner buck takes shape.
Clockwise from top right The Porsche 908 body, seen from rear three-quarter; tubular structure visible from within – and also under the tail; Gammie casts his own components, including brake discs; drawings and iconic images line the walls.